Don DeLillo's latest is an ambitious novel of opposites – but can its halves be reconciled?

Zero K can't resist reaching for Beckettian heights while remaining rooted in the banal.

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Samuel Beckett’s relationship with the novel was less a match made in heaven than a serial skirmish – a writer interested only in the essential and the ultimate confronts a form usually devoted to marital misery, weekly routine and social change. His approach was characterised by acts of abnegation and retreat, a switch from English to French (less ornamental, he claimed), and from the discursive picaresque to the unsituated monologue and unpunctuated “scream”. John Updike, in a parody-review of Beckett’s final novel, How It Is, after declaring its “attempt to take the novel into bowels beneath society and circumstance COMMENDABLE”, identified “something wrong here” and wondered if the novel was “a fit vessel for Beckett’s noble sorrow”. In the half-century since, Beckett’s fiction has been routinely invoked as a dead end, literary modernism’s last gasp before the resumption of normal (realist) service. But his influence is everywhere. It thrives particularly in the work of the two stand-out novelists writing in English over the past four decades, J M Coetzee and Don DeLillo.

For Coetzee, coming from South Africa, and chafing against the duty to be a political writer, Beckett offered another way. In his third-person memoir Youth, Coetzee recalls feeling let down in this regard by Ford Madox Ford (placed too much value on knowing “where in the West End to buy the best motoring gloves”) and James Joyce (“too bound up with Ireland”) but discovering in Beckett’s Watt a liberating lack of “clash or conflict”, only “the flow of a voice”. Beckett was apparently “classless, or outside class, as he himself would prefer to be”.

DeLillo has proved a more conflicted follower. In the 1980s he used to complain that Beckett was responsible for the vogue in settings that seemed “theoretical”. Like Tom Wolfe, who levelled a similar accusation in his 1989 manifesto “Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast”, DeLillo put a strong emphasis on “history”, “reality” and “sense of place”. But he has seemed increasingly open to the claims of the general. In his novel Mao II, a writer who doesn’t “find the slightest primal joy in world-naming or enumerating” describes Beckett as “the last writer to shape the way we think and see”. In a piece anticipating Beckett’s centenary, DeLillo wrote: “Beckett is a master of language. He is all language. Out of the words come the people instead of the other way around.”

The process has been one of expansion, not conversion: DeLillo’s writing in the past 20 years has also dealt with the Cold War, 9/11, Iraq, Wall Street. But you get a sense of the distance travelled when you juxtapose the titles of his first novel, Americana, and his new one, Zero K, in which we are taken to, among other placeless spaces, a “model of shape and form . . . set securely nowhere” and a room that looks like “an abstract thing, a theoretical occurrence”.

In the opening pages, the narrator, Jeffrey Lockhart, travels to Chelyabinsk, a tract of lost land near Kyrgyzstan, and the site of the Convergence, a research facility specialising in cryopreservation. The patrons and scientists maintain a “studied blankness” about their nationality, their past, their families and even their names. Jeffrey’s father, Ross, is one of the main backers of the Convergence, and Jeffrey’s stepmother, Artis, who suffers from multiple sclerosis, will be among the first “heralds”, submitting to the “timeless repose” of cryogenesis and leaving behind “all the shaky complications of body, mind and personal circumstance”. Jeffrey divides his time in Chelyabinsk between passive reflection and impassioned debate about the body, language and death. An old man with “neck tendons like bridge cables” asks him: “Aren’t all of us here waiting for something to happen?”

So far, so Godot. Like the most recent novels by Coetzee, Cormac McCarthy and Kazuo Ishiguro, and DeLillo’s own previous novel Point Omega, the long opening section of Zero K employs what Coetzee has defined as the patented Beckett landscape: a bleak waste in which a pair of monologuers “rehearse again and again the great themes of Western philosophy”. The Convergence itself is a stew of borrowed Beckettian imagery. While frozen, the heralds are said to have a “passive sort of mental grasp. Ping ping ping” – “ping” being, in Beckett’s stories from the Sixties, a moment of clarity that visits a naked white body in a suspended state where “the temperature goes down, to reach its minimum, say freezing-point”. In Zero K, Artis, once preserved, reflects: “I am made of words.” An observer calls her all “words”.

What complicates this apparent acceptance of the Beckett model of meaning-seeking is Jeffrey’s deep scepticism about the claims of the Convergence. On their return to New York, he tells his father that they are “back in history now. Days have names and numbers”. The Convergence may extend to its awakened heralds “the promise of a lyric intensity outside the measure of normal experience”, but Jeffrey finds true depth and intensity in everyday life, in “things people do, ordinarily, forgettably”. At least that’s what he wants to find – but “the soporifics of normalcy” make it hard to achieve moments of communion.

Jeffrey’s quest risks tipping the novel into the terrain of the binary conundrum, familiar from the work of Ian McEwan and Richard Powers. But rather than pitting science against superstition, DeLillo is measuring two forms of enlightened thinking which gently clash. The Convergence, for all its New Age trappings, has a far stronger empirical basis – it is recognisably post-humanist science – than Jeffrey’s viewpoint, which is practically deist. In its form, Zero K dramatises DeLillo’s dual allegiance to Beckett-like essentialism and to a more worldly enumeration. But although Jeffrey embodies the side of DeLillo that believes in specificity, he is not a hardline materialist, dropping brand names and scrutinising news footage. Rather, he recalls reading “a secondhand paperback crammed with huge and violent emotions in small crowded type on waterlogged pages”. He requires things not to be irreducibly themselves, but to be representative of something, to have contours.

In allowing Jeffrey’s resistance to take a positive form, Zero K corrects the imbalance of DeLillo’s recent work, and Point Omega in particular. That novel, perhaps DeLillo’s weakest, was given over to the musings of Richard Elster, an intellectual who lives in the desert and talks in keywords. But after Elster’s system is challenged by a personal upheaval, the story’s narrator, Jim Finley, suddenly dismisses his hero’s monologues as “so much dead echo”. The book ends with Jim returning to New York, thereby declaring Richard’s eremite-pontiff position inadequate without troubling to present the sharper-focused alternative.

DeLillo confronts that challenge this time, and doesn’t make it easy for himself. The Convergence is fully imagined, and its advocates are often subtle – to the extent that Jeffrey believably wonders whether the manner of his resistance, his pledged belief in the importance of human potential and human limits, is any more than “shallow responses”, “tricks and games”.

If the novel falters, it is in the portrayal of Jeffrey’s breakthrough, which hinges, as DeLillo readers might expect, on his ­acquaintance with a 14-year-old American boy – an unglazed, example-to-us-all type, as represented by Billy in Ratner’s Star, Tap in The Names, Heinrich in White Noise and Cotter in Underworld. This time we get Stak, the adopted child of Jeffrey’s on-off girlfriend, Emma. There are also flashbacks to Jeffrey’s own “Staklike”, 14-year-old self, who watched his mother remove lint from an overcoat, and who felt able to see “the unseeable texture of a life”.

It’s as if DeLillo can’t resist showing that he can reach those Beckettian heights without even leaving home: that the street possesses, anyway, the virtues of the vacuum. Yet the effect is not earned. DeLillo’s lucid American children, equally awestruck by paper napkins and prime numbers, work like a trump card. At one point, he even seems to be covering himself when Jeffrey, encountering yet another receptive boy, says: “I hated to think that he was impaired in some way, macrocephalic, mentally deficient . . .” And if as well as, say, fulfilment in a marriage and dignity in accepting human limitations, you can find transcendence in a traffic jam, then clearly there is no need to take “a marathon journey” into the desert to hear about “the white-clad faithful in Mecca” and “Hindus gathered on the banks of the Ganges”.

After all the openness to divergent viewpoints, the resistance to binarisms, all the fervid chasing of nuance, Zero K is suddenly at risk of seeming neat and even cheap – less propelled by its author’s polar instincts than uniting the worst of both.

Zero K by Don DeLillo is published by Picador (288pp, £16.99)

Leo Robson is the NS’s lead fiction reviewer

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 12 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The anti-Trump

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